Big Ears Festival: eighth blackbird and Bonnie “Prince” Billy

The composer David Rakowski recently tweeted, “The problem with having genres is that people claim to bend them all the time. Can we create delightful arabesques with them instead?” On Night 2 of the 2016 Big Ears Festival, new music sextet eighth blackbird, which has directed the Ojai Music Festival and been in residence at the Curtis School of Music, got up on stage of the Tennessee Theater and played as the backing band for Bonnie “Prince” Billy. If the players weren’t having the time of their lives, they were doing an Oscar-worthy job of faking it. Delightful is a good word to describe it.

Pianist Lisa Kaplan launched into the infectious riff of David Lang’s these broken wings before the stage lights had fully illuminated. The string and wind lines danced around the recurring piano foundation, thumping forward on percussionist Matthew Duvall’s cannon-shot bass drum hits, fading out almost entirely and coming back suddenly with full force.

Bryce Dessner-- Photo by Shervin Lainez

Bryce Dessner– Photo by Shervin Lainez

Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballads appeared in a new extended version, different from the seven movements recorded on the Grammy-winning Filament. The music is based on Appalachian murder ballads, haunting major and modal tunes that were passed down orally for generations. For the most part, Dessner left the straightforward source material unchanged in one or two voices, with the others playing restless figures around it, or fragmented the source material between voices. Flutist Nathalie Joachim, the group’s newest member, had her flute pulsing and hooting like a nervous owl while the percussion and piano fired off jumpy blasts of sound, and the entire ensemble swept right into a crooked fiddle tune helmed by violinist Yvonne Lam. Cellist Nicolas Photinos took an explosive solo movement all to himself, digging into double stops and tearing through an energetic melody. Unfortunately, no program notes were given out and details on the ballads were not included in the festival’s schedule application, so there was no way to tell which ballad was which.

For the final ballad, which Dessner announced as “Down in the Willow Garden,” Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) came out to sing. That piece’s herky-jerky percussion under flowing strings and winds were two pieces of a puzzle that didn’t quite fit, but hearing Joachim lower her flute to sing in a smoky, rich alto with Oldham was a rare and unexpected treat.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Bonnie “Prince” Billy

Kaplan’s piano anchored Fredric Rzewski’s Coming Together, which accumulated power, collapsed, and strengthened again, a hurricane replacing its eyewall. The unceasing, restless pentatonic bass line jumped momentarily to different players, and other voices jumped on a note as it passed by in the bass and held it out. Oldham stood behind the microphone reading a 1970 letter from Sam Melville, a prisoner who died in the Attica prison riots. He spoke with hushed determination at the start, and spat barrels of fire and brimstone by the end. Players from the ensemble shouted quick echoes of the text into their microphones behind him. Though Oldham could have taken some advice from the words and “seldom employed histrionics” in his delivery, the 1973 piece felt timely and relevant especially in light of recent attention to the police and incarceration system’s injustices.

To close the program with a smile, eighth blackbird gave Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s songs lush orchestrations reminiscent of middle-period Nick Drake. In “When Thy Song Flows Through Me,” the instruments embraced Oldham’s voice in a simple and mystical devotional. “One With the Birds,” the final song, gave Joachim and Lam Messiaen-esque chromatic birdsong soaring through the music box piano line. If a collaboration is in the works, I’ll buy it.